culture that has mostly faded from the neighboring islands was alive and well there.The Gullah Geechee are descendants of West Africans who were brought to America’s southeastern coast more than two centuries ago and inhabit regions including the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry. The Gullah Geechee historically spoke their own distinctive Creole language, and still maintain customs and traditions that make them a unique subculture within the African diaspora.
, a world-famous African-American cultural institution. Though open to tourists, the church is maintained by a devoted congregation whose bulletins could be seen tucked into the racks on the long white pews.When we got to the top of the stairs, my 8-year-old nephew, Jake, looked back at me, confused. “The slaves had to sit up here?” he asked. “You mean they weren’t allowed down there?” He pointed over the low wall to the red-carpeted first floor. “But why?”
I made sure to explain that while Brick Baptist is a visible reminder of the ugly inequities of slavery, the beautiful church was also a powerful symbol of the struggle for civil rights. My 6-year-old son Henry’s interest in the history was quickly exhausted, but his older cousins comprehended it better, and were interested to learn that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. practiced his “I Have a Dream” speech in the Brick Baptist Church before the in 1963.
, where photographs of the original students at Penn School sit side by side with farm tools used by freedmen and women who worked to support their community after slavery. Afterward we drove across the Sea Island Parkway for lunch at , where owners Bill and Sara Green serve a steady stream of locals and tourists.that was grown on the Sea Islands during slavery.. Bill’s most popular booking is the movie tour, which takes visitors on a leisurely hourlong trip to sites made famous by movies including “Forrest Gump” and “The Prince of Tides.” I chose the Plantation and Gullah Tour, which departs from the Downtown Marina.After another brief visit to Penn Center, we headed back out to St. Helena for a stop at the picturesque ruins of the , an 18th-century church built for plantation families who lived too far from Beaufort to make it to the mainland for Sunday services.
On the grounds of the church, among the live oaks and shaggy, overgrown palmettos, Bill told me about Robert Smalls, a Beaufort native and former slave who began his career by taking the Confederate steamer he piloted and sailing it through the Union blockade. After the war, Smalls was elected to Congress and bought the Beaufort house that had been the home of his former master.
Although Smalls lost his seat in 1886, he remained active in Beaufort politics and community affairs until his death in 1915, and is honored with a monument by his grave in the churchyard at Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort. Again and again I found that my efforts to uncover the stories of this area were full of these contradictions — on the one hand, monuments to a ruined history; on the other, inspiring stories of heroism and survival.
(1948 Sea Island Parkway) for our daily ration of extra-large white shrimp. I took advantage of the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Charles Gay, who co-owns the business with his sister and brother. I’d caught glimpses of Mr. Gay over the years, along with other members of the family (a grandson frequently works the cash register), but I’d never spent more than a few minutes in the bustling front room, where coolers of shrimp, crab and local fish fill the air with the briny scent of a Lowcountry summer.Mr. Gay was raised on St. Helena, and still lives within walking distance of the business that has been in his family since the 1940s. He recalled a time when he knew exactly how many people lived on the island, and “you could walk down the middle of the main road without worrying about getting hit.”
Mr. Gay, who is white, grew up speaking Gullah, having learned it from his neighbors. Like Ms. Legree, he remembers St. Helena as a remote community, so safe that nobody ever locked their doors.
But the Gays are also feeling the pressure of increased land prices, and — perhaps more significantly — climate change. hit the Sea Islands hard in October 2016, destroying the docks at the Gay Fish Company. Mr. Gay and his siblings put the business up for sale in March 2017, but the business has remained open while they look for a buyer. Mr. Gay said that he’d like the new owners to keep the family name, but he didn’t sound optimistic. “People don’t understand the history that’s here,” he said.
and the Gullah Grub owners’ , and to do whatever I can to advance the cause of environmental justice in this area. Climate change will hit the Lowcountry and its low-income residents hard, and my family has a part to play in ensuring that life here is sustainable.I hope that my children and my nephews will still find a refuge on the Sea Islands in the years to come, and that they’ll take the time to seek out the hidden stories that are easy to miss when you’re traveling 35 miles an hour.
Mary Stewart Atwell is the author of the novel, “Wild Girls,” and a professor of English at Virginia Military Institute.
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Searching Out the Hidden Stories of South Carolina’s Gullah Country